Cholera Ravages Zimbabwe, Mugabe Won't Budge

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Tsvangiray Mukwazhi / AP

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe

The growing cholera crisis in Zimbabwe, which the U.N. estimates has killed 783 people and has infected more than 16,000, simply doesn't exist in the mind of Robert Mugabe. "I am happy to say," the nation's president of 28 years announced on Thursday, "there is no cholera." And, he added, "now that there is no cholera, there is no cause for war."

Mugabe claims that the outbreak of a disease contracted by ingesting fecal matter in water — in a country whose economy has collapsed and whose government barely functions, and where hunger stalks the land — is all part of a fiendish Western plot to justify an invasion of Zimbabwe. To be sure, the idea of overthrowing Mugabe has growing support. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. President George Bush have all called for Mugabe to step down. Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga are among those who have gone even further, advocating international military intervention to overthrow Mugabe. They argue that the U.N. has a responsibility to take action under the Responsibility to Protect, an open-ended justification for humanitarian intervention that the U.N. adopted in 2005. That's because saving Zimbabwe from a humanitarian catastrophe will require hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid and investment, which will be withheld as long as the strongman holds on to power. (See pictures of political tension in Zimbabwe.)

Mugabe is hardly any more popular inside Zimbabwe. His party lost its parliamentary majority in a general election in March, and Mugabe finished second behind opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential vote. But despite the election results and the near daily street protests in the capital, Harare, by doctors, teachers, trade unions and, last week, a few hundred soldiers who ransacked shops and stalls, most Zimbabweans don't expect to be rid of Mugabe anytime soon. "You can have governments under threat from a few days of protest in Thailand or Greece, or food riots destabilizing regimes around the world," says Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at the London think tank Chatham House, "but Zimbabwe is different. Zimbabwe always surprises you with how little changes."

Mugabe's regime has a long-established willingness to use violence against its political opponents. In Matabeleland in the mid-1980s, his army killed thousands of civilians in a campaign to bloody the opposition Zapu Party. When his ruling Zanu-PF lost the March election, the security forces and allied militia were again unleashed to bludgeon Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) into backing out of a presidential runoff vote. Yet when Zimbabweans protest, with backing by world leaders, at its government's refusal to be voted out — the normal channels of democratic process — that action has little or no effect on Mugabe's political calculations.

And the autocratic leader has good reason to assume that armed intervention to topple him remains unlikely. The U.N. is already overstretched in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, and it isn't ready to enact a regime change. And even if the U.S. and the U.K. weren't also tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, they long ago expended whatever political capital and influence they had over the situation in Zimbabwe, says Anthony Holmes, head of the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

Noria Mashumba, a Zimbabwean senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, predicts that Zimbabweans will take matters into their own hands. "This cholera epidemic is really the last straw," she says. "The government is not going to be able to back away from this." But Vines sees little hope for a rebellion. "The population is fatigued, most of the middle class has left, energy is very low, and Zimbabwe's population is anyway very conservative," he says. "On top of that, the paradox of the cholera epidemic is that the outside emergency aid it attracts will prop up Mugabe."

If the West and Zimbabweans are unable to muster the power to depose Mugabe, what of his African neighbors? The two main African organizations with leverage over events in Zimbabwe are the African Union, which has peacekeepers in Darfur and Somalia, and the Southern African Development Community, which has overseen the stalled power-sharing talks between Mugabe and the MDC. The African country with the most power to affect change in Zimbabwe is South Africa, which supplies Zimbabwe's electricity and is the landlocked country's main link with the outside world. But political infighting in the ruling African National Congress has left South Africa without a clear policy on Zimbabwe, a situation unlikely to change before next spring's general election. And there's no consensus among other African governments, many of which share Mugabe's appetite for power, that Mugabe should have to go willingly or be forced out. "I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe that," says Holmes. "And that's the issue; that's the problem. It's a litmus test of African seriousness."

Holmes believes the aging Mugabe is in denial and that efforts to change the regime — be they targeted sanctions, threats of prosecution at the Hague, negotiations or even the use of force — should be targeted at his lieutenants, to "separate them from him, and from each other." As for Mugabe, Holmes says, "His reality rarely intersects with that of the 12 million people in his country. There is a zero-percent chance of a pragmatic response from him." Even the fact that scores of Zimbabweans are dying every day from a disease contracted by ingesting fecal matter in water — which can be cured at a cost of a few cents per dose of medication — won't produce a tipping point. "This is actually a slow process of degradation," says Vines. "And it can drag on for a very long time. Cholera just draws attention to it again. The story has not changed." Until it does, Zimbabwe's future will come down to a question of longevity. Who will die first — Mugabe or his country?

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